I bet you thought I’d never get back to this! Sorry, I like to do lots of things.
Remember the idea: in 2004, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote a now-famous paper on how we could hold atmospheric carbon dioxide below 500 parts per million. They said that to do this, it would be enough to find 7 ways to reduce carbon emissions, each one ramping up linearly to the point of reducing carbon emissions by 1 gigaton per year by 2054.
They called these stabilization wedges, for the obvious reason:
Their paper listed 15 of these wedges. The idea here is to go through them and critique them. In Part 1 of this series we talked about four wedges involving increased efficiency and conservation. In Part 2 we covered one about shifting from coal to natural gas, and three about carbon capture and storage.
Now let’s do nuclear power and renewable energy!
9. Nuclear power. As Pacala and Socolow already argued in wedge 5, replacing 700 gigawatts of efficient coal-fired power plants with some carbon-neutral form of power would save us a gigaton of carbon per year. This would require 700 gigawatts of nuclear power plants running at 90% capacity (just as assumed for the coal plants). The means doubling the world production of nuclear power. The global pace of nuclear power plant construction from 1975 to 1990 could do this! So, this is one of the few wedges that doesn’t seem to require heroic technical feats. But of course, there’s still a downside: we can only substantially boost the use of nuclear power if people become confident about all aspects of its safety.
10. Wind power. Wind power is intermittent: Pacala and Socolow estimate that the ‘peak’ capacity (the amount you get under ideal circumstances) is about 3 times the ‘baseload’ capacity (the amount you can count on). So, to save a gigaton of carbon per year by replacing 700 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants, we need roughly 2000 gigawatts of peak wind power. Wind power was growing at about 30% per year when they wrote their paper, and it had reached a world total of 40 gigawatts. So, getting to 2000 gigawatts would mean multiplying the world production of wind power by a factor of 50. The wind turbines would “occupy” about 30 million hectares, or about 30-45 square meters per person — some on land and some offshore. But because windmills are widely spaced, land with windmills can have multiple uses.
11. Photovoltaic solar power. This too is intermittent, so to save a gigaton of carbon per year we need 2000 gigawatts of peak photovoltaic solar power to replace coal. Like wind, photovoltaic solar was growing at 30% per year when Pacala and Socolow wrote their paper. However, only 3 gigawatts had been installed worldwide. So, getting to 2000 gigawatts would require multiplying the world production of photovoltaic solar power by a factor of 700. See what I mean about ‘heroic feats’? In terms of land, this would take about 2 million hectares, or 2-3 square meters per person.
12. Renewable hydrogen. You’ve probably heard about hydrogen-powered cars. Of course you’ve got to make the hydrogen. Renewable electricity can produce hydrogen for vehicle fuel. 4000 gigawatts of peak wind power, for example, used in high-efficiency fuel-cell cars, could keep us from burning a gigaton of carbon each year in the form of gasoline or diesel fuel. Unfortunately, this is twice as much wind power as we’d need in wedge 10, where we use wind to eliminate the need for burning some coal. Why? Gasoline and diesel have less carbon per unit of energy than coal does.
13. Biofuels. Fossil-carbon fuels can also be replaced by biofuels such as ethanol. To save a gigaton per year of carbon, we could make 5.4 gigaliters per day of ethanol as a replacement for gasoline — provided the process of making this ethanol didn’t burn fossil fuels! Doing this would require multiplying the world production of bioethanol by a factor of 50. It would require 250 million hectares committed to high-yield plantations, or 250-375 square meters per person. That’s an area equal to about one-sixth of the world’s cropland. An even larger area would be required to the extent that the biofuels require fossil-fuel inputs. Clearly this could cut into the land used for growing food.
There you go… let me hear your critique! Which of these measures seem best to you? Which seem worst? But more importantly: why?
Remember: it takes a total of 7 wedges to save the world, according to this paper by Pacala and Socolow.
Next time I’ll tell you about the final two stabilization wedges… and then I’ll give you an update on their idea.